Irma’s Story

Sunday at Holy Innocents, we commemorated a number of birthdays: Mark Britt 8/17, Rob Bartlett 8/20, Earl Williams 8/22, Mary Durst 8/23, Salina Allan 8/25. Also, an anniversary: Paul and Luann Petrulakis 8/20. The bulletin for today stated that there were no deaths or anniversaries of deaths to remember, but a week ago on August 13th, we commemorated Irma, who died that week in 2002. I received an email from parishioner Scott Eiler that afternoon. Scott is accustomed to sending out thoughts about faith and action to some friends that are part of his email-based “cyberchurch” sometimes. He reminded me of the story of Irma:

In my live-action church, we observe the anniversaries of deaths, for those who were part of our community. One anniversary came around today.

Four years ago (in 2002), I was visiting a church – my current church. Even then, I’d been visiting that church for so long, that I’d started singing with their choir.

The pastor came to us that day. She told us, there was a dying member of the congregation, named Irma. The pastor had asked Irma if she had any last requests. There was one request: Irma wanted the choir to sing “Ave Maria” with her.

Ave Maria?!

I must note, I was a member of a conservative Congregational church in Massachusetts at the time. I was visiting an Episcopal church in Illinois. It came to a surprise to me, that Episcopalians ever sing songs about Mary of Nazareth.

I can argue over the logic of venerating the “middleman” (or “middlewoman”). I don’t care who the intermediary between man and God is; if it isn’t Jesus Christ, I don’t need it. I feel that way whether the intermediary is Holy Mary or Martin Luther King Jr.

But I do not willfully deny comfort to a dying woman who claims the name of Jesus, even if I quibble over the details of her faith. And the “Ave Maria” song was easy enough to learn.

So, the choir and I loaded into a couple of station wagons, to go sing “Ave Maria” at Irma’s bedside. Irma sang along enthusiastically.

Irma died soon after.

I also remember that so well. Irma’s adult granddaughter seemed anxious to ease Irma’s way as much as possible, because she was caring for her at home in a tiny bedroom that had been converted into a kind of hospice-like or hospital-like space.

Scott had only recently arrived but had quickly become a fixture in the choir, holding down the bass end of the scale. Those of us in the choir decided that if we were going to do it right, we’d better dress for the part, so when we drove off to sing for Irma, we took our choir robes (which are actually just standard black cassocks and white surplices) along with our hymnals. I’m not sure, but I think we also took along a crucifer, though I could be wrong. We crowded into the tiny space and about then I wondered
if maybe we shouldn’t have discussed bringing a pitch pipe, or something to get us started on the same note at the same time. But we sang the Ave Maria, and it went well enough; Irma seemed to be quite happy to hear it again.

Then she asked if we’d like to sing a hymn with her daughter and granddaughter. That’s when we realized that this musical jaunt was much more important than a mere performance – we were singing backup for a family of singers as they maintained bonds of affection at long distance. Irma’s daughter was in Virginia, on a speakerphone, and she also had the 1972 Hymnal at hand. She announced a “number,” we found it, hummed a note, and were off. When we finished, the granddaughter picked a “number,” and we sang that,
too. Irma made one or two requests, I think by quietly whispering the first line or so of a favorite hymn, and we figured out what “number” it was and all of us, near and far, sang together to ease Irma’s suffering.

We sang four, or maybe five things all told, and then we left quietly after each had a chance to say goodbye privately to Irma, who was tiny, wizened by pain, but strong of spirit still.

As Scott said, she died soon after, and then a huge contingent of family members descended on Holy Innocents – daughters, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, cousins, family friends, and “adopted” family. They came from all over the US, the Caribbean, and Central America (one grandson never did get his visa in time to come for the funeral). They brought vast stockpots full of food – spicy Caribbean pork, rice, and beans, and all kinds of other exotic things. There were probably 85 or 90 of them, more than 3 times
as many of them as there were of regular parishioners, at the funeral. And they were all extremely beautiful, attractive, gorgeous people, too. It was an amazing family to be with.

It went pretty much as Episcopalian/Anglican services go, except that at the end, the real family business had to be attended to – singing. As before, one or the other would call out a “number,” and everyone would take a moment to find their place, take a deep breath, and sing like a mighty wind. We in the choir were so intrigued that we all gathered with the family after the formal service and kept singing until we started to lose our voices. And still they went on, reaffirming family ties and remembering Irma
in the way they thought best – by raising their voices in praise and thanksgiving to God.

It was unforgettable, and I’m not surprised that Scott was moved to write about it, four years after the fact. Irma was a stranger to him and to many of us, but not after we sang for her.


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